For me, a first-generation Korean-American, comfort food is a plate of kimchi, white rice, and fried Spam. Such preferences are personally meaningful — and also culturally meaningful. Our comfort foods map who are, where we come from, and what happened to us along the way. Notes Jennifer 8. Lee (TED Talk: Jennifer 8. Lee looks for General Tso), “what you want to cook and eat is an accumulation, a function of your experiences — the people you’ve dated, what you’ve learned, where you’ve gone. There may be inbound elements from other cultures, but you’ll always eat things that mean something to you.”
In much of China, only the older generations still shop every day in the wet market, then go home and cook traditional dishes.
Jennifer Berg, director of graduate food studies at New York University, notes that food is particularly important when you become part of a diaspora, separated from your mother culture. “It’s the last vestige of culture that people shed,” says Berg. “There’s some aspects of maternal culture that you’ll lose right away. First is how you dress, because if you want to blend in or be part of a larger mainstream culture the things that are the most visible are the ones that you let go. With food, it’s something you’re engaging in hopefully three times a day, and so there are more opportunities to connect to memory and family and place. It’s the hardest to give up.”
Food as identity
The “melting pot” in American cuisine is a myth, not terribly unlike the idea of a melting pot of American culture, notes chef Dan Barber (TED Talk: How I fell in love with a fish). “Most cultures don’t think about their cuisine in such monolithic terms,” he says. “French, Mexican, Chinese, and Italian cuisines each comprise dozens of distinct regional foods. And I think “American” cuisine is moving in the same direction, becoming more localized, not globalized.”
Most cultures don’t think about their cuisine in monolithic terms. Mexican, Chinese and French cuisines each comprise dozens of distinct regional foods.
American cuisine is shaped by the natural wealth of the country. Having never faced agricultural hardship, Americans had the luxury of not relying on rotating crops, such as the Japanese, whose food culture now showcases buckwheat alongside rice, or the Indians, or the French and Italians, who feature lentils and beans alongside wheat. “That kind of negotiation with the land forced people to incorporate those crops in to the culture,” says Barber. And so eating soba noodles becomes part of what it means to be Japanese, and eating beans becomes part of what it means to be French.
So if what we eat is what we are, what are Americans? Well, meat. “If Americans have any unifying food identity, I would say we are a (mostly white) meat culture,” says Barber. “The protein-centric dinner plate, whether you’re talking about a boneless chicken breast, or a 16-ounce steak, as an everyday expectation is something that America really created, and now exports to the rest of the world.”
Every single culture and religion uses food as part of their celebrations, says Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of the FEED Project and The 30 Project, which aims to tackle both hunger and obesity issues globally. (Watch her TED Talk: Obesity + hunger = 1 global food issue.) “The celebratory nature of food is universal. Every season, every harvest, and every holiday has its own food, and this is true in America as well. It helps define us.”
Food as survival
Sometimes food means survival. While the Chinese cooks who exported “Chinese” food around the world ate authentic cooking at home, the dishes they served, thus creating new cuisines entirely, were based on economic necessity. Chinese food in America, for example, is Darwinian, says Lee. It was a way for Chinese cooks to survive in America and earn a living. It started with the invention of chop suey in the late 1800s, followed by fortune cookies around the time of World War II, and the pervasive General Tso’s Chicken, in the 1970s. Waves of more authentic Chinese food followed, as Hunan and Sichuan cooking came to the U.S. by way of Taiwan.
In Chinese cities, meanwhile, only grandparents are cooking and eating the way that people from outside of China might imagine “Chinese” food. The older generation still would shop every day in the wet market, bargain for tomatoes, then go home that night and cook traditional dishes, says Crystyl Mo, a food writer based in Shanghai. But most people born after the Cultural Revolution don’t know how to cook. “That generation was focused purely on studying, and their parents never taught them how to cook,” says Mo. “So they’re very educated, but they’re eating takeout or going back to their parents’ homes for meals.”
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